Does your business have a great birth story?

Having a great ‘birth story’ is a powerful engagement tool for customers and employees alike. When I worked at eBay Europe, we always loved to tell the story of how Pierre Omidyar invented the concept of online auction by accident. The first item he advertised for sale was a broken laser pointer and he was amazed that anyone wanted to buy it. Soon, other people were contacting him with goods that they wanted to sell online. Within a year, Omidyar was so overwhelmed with demand that he had to give up the day job to manage it. Stories like this are like gold dust. When you work for a company like eBay, you quickly discover the enthusiasm and passion that customers have for the product. Everywhere you go, you meet people who want to share their own eBay stories with you. It can be a humbling experience.

Last week, I had a similar feeling when I listened to Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s employee number 1, talk about the birth of his latest business. Transfer Wise, a peer to peer fx company, was inspired by his frustration at getting ripped off by banks every time he transferred money from London back to Estonia. Here is an article that I wrote about his story for the PurpleBeach website.

Why not change money with common people like you?

Taavet Hinrikus couldn’t work it out. Every time he transferred money from Sterling into euros, some 3-4% went missing for no good reason. As Taavet explains it, sending money is about as technically complicated as sending an e-mail, so why do banks take such a huge cut?  In airports, you can lose up to 15% of the value of the exchanged. Even when banks advertise zero commission rate, it’s usually only to disguise the fact that they offer a ridiculous exchange rate. He concluded that the whole fx business was simply ‘a racket.’

Then Taavet had an idea. While he needed to transfer Sterling to euros, a friend had to transfer euros to Sterling. So they agreed to put the money in each other’s bank accounts at the published exchange rate without any commissions. With this simple wheeze, the two friends cut out the middle man, saved a bunch of money and a business idea was born.

You’ve heard before of garage businesses? ‘Transfer Wise’ was cooked up in a kitchen. It offers the opportunity to ‘change money with common people like you,’ (a tribute, no doubt, to the classic Pulp song sung by Jarvis Cocker.)

So far, Transfer Wise has transferred £100m and the amount of transfers has doubled in last 4 months. They exchange 8 currencies and soon will be add a further 10-15. All the growth has come from personal recommendation.

The initial charge of £1 per transaction was, according to Taavet, ‘great marketing, but a bad business plan.’ They have since introduced a charging system of £1 on exchanges up to £200 and 0.5% charge on amounts above that. Taavet contrasts the high fees of banks with the Transfer Wise mindset of ‘how little can we charge to build a global business.

According to Taavet, there is a huge potential market for peer2peer fx, with 200M people worldwide who live, work or study abroad. Taavet says, “Our enemy is the banks. Our target is the 99% of people who go to banks and get ripped off everyday.”

 

Adapting to flexible working

How well does your organisation manage flexible working? Does your strategy drive engagement by allowing employees to define their own work life balance? Or is it perceived as a sneaky way to cut costs while extending the effective working day to include all waking hours?

This week I took part in a workshop at Comma Partners on how virtual working and globalisation of business affects employee engagement. Michelle Pattison presented an absorbing case study about Unilever’s agile working strategy.

The Unilever approach aims to maximise flexibility and minimise constraints for the business by aligning the three key enablers of technology, workplaces and working practices. When it works, the benefits are diverse and transformational. As well as achieving cost savings on property, travel, and associated environmental benefits, agile working boosts capability by enabling global, virtual teams to collaborate effectively and increases resilience against business continuity risks. Agile working also promotes diversity, by enabling people to choose how they manage their work life balance and can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool – as demonstrated in this Unilever careers video.

During the discussion, a number of themes emerged for how to engage employees positively about adopting flexible work practices. Everyone agreed that getting leaders to ‘walk the talk’ is fundamental. It’s difficult to get employees to hot desk if their leaders retreat into private offices. Similarly, travel bans provoke resentment when leaders still choose to globe trot in the company jet.

Another major concern was how companies protect their employees from burnout. Hardworking, ambitious employees in highly competitive, global companies can easily find themselves working 12 hour days over an 18 hour window. Managers must be alert to their team members work patterns to guard against creeping workaholism.

For a communicator, flexible working has its own particular challenges. How can you engage people face to face when they rarely come into the office? This is a subject close to my own heart, having pioneered the use of video-conference technology as an engagement tool at eBay Europe with the innovative and award winning European Team Brief. In the same way that Saturday night TV has staged a comeback in the UK against an industry trend towards ‘on demand’ viewing, so communicators must stage ‘you just gotta be there’ experiences to bring employees together. It’s all about creating a buzz so that employees feel they’re missing out if they don’t get the live experience.

As a final point, I believe that virtual working is great for established teams, but you also need to consider how to build new teams and onboard new members. Working as a contractor, I rely upon being able to rapidly establish my internal network in order to become effective. Achieving that in an environment where people rarely visit the office becomes a big challenge. If you don’t thinks that’s a problem in your organisation, ask yourself when you last went into the office solely for an induction meeting with a recent joiner?